Revenge or reform?

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The Salvadore Vol 264 No 7099p830
June 3, 2000 Onlooker

Revenge or reform?

Human societies have always had a nasty disposition towards inflicting pain and other unpleasant penalties on any individual they consider to have offended against their customs.
The rules have been drawn up by the elders of the group on sometimes reasonable, often authoritarian, grounds and enforced by threats of brute force. They have been embodied in religious and legal codes and it seems that little attempt has been made over the ages to justify some of their demands analytically, or even empirically. In the last resort, rhetoric, the art of swaying crowds, takes precedence over reason. There may be much cynicism in this analysis, but I suspect it rings true. A more creative attitude is long overdue.
Francis Bacon in the 17th century wrote in his essay on revenge that "Revenge is a kind of wild justice", which suggests that Bacon, with all his legal and political background, was not entirely satisfied that the notion of revenge was morally sound. And later Jeremy Bentham, looking to reform the savage penal system, maintained in his ?Principles of morals and legislation' (1789) that indeed, "All punishment is mischief; all punishment in itself is evil", thus roundly condemning the retributive movement, lock, stock and barrel.
In modern parlance, we distinguish legal sentencing as either reductivist, meaning that it is aimed at preventing the repetition of a criminal offence, or retributivist, aimed at punishing the individual for sinning against society and making his or her lot as hard as possible. The constructive approach is to understand the sinner and encourage him or her not to follow the same line again.
Politicians, as distinguished from ethicists, almost invariably look to punishment instead of trying to understand motives and restraints. It seems to me that this entrenched attitude is more closely connected with trying to satisfy a public desire for revenge than with any search for remedies. The common knee-jerk reaction of the public at large is a very primitive one, based on emotion rather than logic. Presumably it has instinctive religious roots far back in the history of the race. Accordingly, we hear cries of indignation when a convicted criminal is felt to have been treated with undue leniency. The argument is advanced that we think too highly of the criminal and neglect the suffering of the victim and relatives when we spare the offender and seek to reform him.
It is a strange situation in which we find ourselves, bound in the restrictions which determined the behaviour of our remote ancestors. We might with advantage devote more research to the problem of how best to stop habitual criminals reoffending, rather than pandering to a crude demand for revenge, sweet revenge, which does nothing to improve the working of the society in which we have perforce to lead our daily lives.

Citation: The Salvadore URI: 20001708

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